Boat carrying 81 Rohingya found stranded on Indonesia island

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AP) — Villagers in Indonesia's Aceh province on Friday discovered a stranded boat carrying 81 Rohingya Muslims, including children, who had left a refugee camp in Bangladesh, officials said.

Miftach Cut Adek, the leader of the local tribal fishing community, said 90 people were on board the boat when it left the refugee camp on Feb. 11, but nine died during the trip.

More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar to camps in Bangladesh since August 2017, when the military launched a clearance operation in response to attacks by a rebel group. Myanmar security forces have been accused of mass rapes, killings and the burning of thousands of homes.

Groups of Rohingya have attempted to leave the crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh and travel by sea in hazardous voyages to other Muslim-majority countries in the region.

M. Ilyas, a Rohingya on the stranded boat, said they had headed initially to Malaysia but were refused entry because of concerns over the coronavirus. He said their boat's engine broke down in Indian waters, and local fishermen there helped them continue their trip.

The engine broke down again, and the boat, carrying 49 women, 21 men and 11 children, ran aground on Idaman island in Aceh, Indonesia’s northernmost province, he said.

Local villagers reported the stranded boat to authorities, Adek said.

Salmidin, a police officer, said local authorities, including the coronavirus task force, are working together to process the Rohingya.

“It is an empty island and we do not know their condition, whether they are free from COVID-19 or not. We are trying to examine them now,” Salmidin said.

Myanmar has denied citizenship to most Rohingya Muslims since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless. They are also denied freedom of movement and other rights including education.

Authorities in Myanmar say the Rohingya migrated illegally from Bangladesh, even though many of their families have lived in Myanmar for decades.

In September, almost 300 Rohingya were found on Ujung Blang beach in Aceh province after months at sea.